There is a lesson to be learned from the Mona Lisa.
It is without doubt the worst presented painting in the Louvre. It’s housed in the most unattractive room, with the worst lighting. There is a rope that keeps patrons from getting too close. A glass box protects it from atmosphere, UV light, attack from aliens, botulism, the flu—and any type of deep appreciation.
And yet the hordes appear. It often feels like the most crowded space in Paris. Tourists, each of them with a cell phone, press toward the rope and then look away from the painting, raise their phone slightly above head level and snap away. The damn selfie a thousand, a hundred thousand times a day. It doesn’t matter how uncomfortable the room may be. The room is uncomfortable because the painting is popular. The ambient mood is “Keep moving.” Don’t linger. Don’t engage.
However, the subject of the tourist selfie is not the work by Da Vinci. The subject is the photographer, documenting their presence in a famous place. Here is me in front of the Mona Lisa. Half an hour later, here is me in front of Notre Dame. Half an hour later, here is me in front of the Eiffel Tower. Half an hour later still, here is me over my bowl of authentic French onion soup. The subject is nothing more than “me me me.” It’s difficult to believe anyone sees where they are, sees anything other than their own reflection in various pools.
I have nothing against the self-portrait, nor do I have anything against documenting travels. And frankly, when traveling, I am not so sure any traveler is so far removed from Echo’s beloved. We all want to prove where we have been.
But beyond the technical aspects of light and speed, however, a photographer’s talent is an understanding of depth. Not just depth of field—depth of idea. A portrait photographer understands how light and shadow create emotion and evocation. A street photographer may never meet any of the people who wind up in the viewfinder, but knows the milieu of urban hustle. A depth of insight based on experience; depth of knowing how that very small detail or shadow can make a cliché into something extraordinary, unique and true.
It’s easy to belittle, then, the cell phone selfie-takers from a position of experience and comfort (if not talent). But what about when we are the tourist? What about when we find ourselves trapped in a schedule that’s not driven by aesthetics? What about the days we find ourselves in a place we’ve never been, without even the grace of an assignment to give us focus and purpose? What about when our real talent, an appreciation of depth, has no depth to rely upon?
The problem with the Mona Lisa is that it looks exactly like the Mona Lisa. We’ve seen that shot before. The Eiffel Tower looks exactly like the Eiffel Tower. In real life, the Sydney Opera House looks like every shopping mall kiosk calendar page we’ve seen. And that’s the problem with the selfie, too. Our faces often look very much like our faces. There is nothing surprising there at all. Even the jet-lagged bags under our eyes are a cliché.
So what do we do? What can we offer that’s any better?
The advice is simple: photograph your curiosity, photograph your desire.
I tend to carry an unusual lens. More often than not, my walk-around lens is a Sigma 8-16mm wide angle because when I am traveling that’s how I see. Huge cityscape. Huge landscape. Huge sky. It’s not a very fast lens and yes, the edges are strange. But that’s my “selfie”— not me per se, and not the Eiffel Tower that we know. This is the Eiffel Tower to me and my self’s view of the world.
My own curiosity does not focus on the single face or intimate moment. My own experience is flavored by how wide I can see. When I put the camera to my eye, what I see is an image as informed by artistic self-awareness as light and shape.
So, a good tourist photograph is a universe removed from the thoughtless selfie. A cell phone raised in front of something that someone else has said is important is, at the very best, a flat reflection. It’s all surface, lacking depth and mystery and, perhaps most importantly, true desire.
The good tourist photograph is unique. It can be flawed in a hundred technical ways but what it gets right, however, is a glimpse of the maker’s creative soul.
—W. Scott Olsen
W. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he also edits the literary magazine Ascent. His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers: Photographs and Essays at Home and Abroad.